A silicate is a compound containing a silicon bearing anion. The great majority of silicates are oxides, but hexafluorosilicate ([SiF6]2−) and other anions are also included. This article focuses mainly on the Si-O anions. Silicates comprise the majority of the earth's crust, as well as the other terrestrial planets, rocky moons, and asteroids. Sand, Portland cement, and thousands of minerals are examples of silicates.
Silicate compounds, including the minerals, consist of silicate anions whose charge is balanced by various cations. Myriad silicate anions can exist, and each can form compounds with many different cations. Hence this class of compounds is very large. Both minerals and synthetic materials fit in this class.
In the vast majority of silicates, including silicate minerals, the Si occupies a tetrahedral environment, being surrounded by 4 oxygen centres. In these structures, the chemical bonds to silicon conform to the octet rule. These tetrahedra sometimes occur as isolated SiO44- centres, but most commonly, the tetrahedra are joined together in various ways, such as pairs (Si2O76-) and rings (Si6O1812-). Commonly the silicate anions are chains, double chains, sheets, and three-dimensional frameworks. All such species have negligible solubility in water at normal conditions.
Occurrence in solution
Silicates are well characterized as solids, but are less commonly observed in solution. The anion SiO44- is the conjugate base of silicic acid, Si(OH)4, and both are elusive as are all of the intermediate species. Instead, solutions of silicates usually observed as mixtures of condensed and partially protonated silicate clusters. The nature of soluble silicates is relevant to understanding biomineralization and the synthesis of aluminosilicates, such as the industrially important catalysts called zeolites.
Silicates with non-tetrahedral silicon
Although the tetrahedron is the common coordination geometry for silicon compounds, silicon is well known to also adopt higher coordination numbers. A well known example of such a high coordination number is hexafluorosilicate (SiF62-). Octahedral coordination by 6 oxygen centres is observed. At very high pressure, even SiO2 adopts this geometry in the mineral stishovite, a dense polymorph of silica found in the lower mantle of the Earth. This structure is also formed by shock during meteorite impacts. Octahedral Si in the form of hexahydroxysilicate ([Si(OH)6]2−) is observed in thaumasite a mineral occurring rarely in nature but sometimes observed amongst other calcium silicate hydrate artificially formed in cement and concrete submitted to a severe sulfate attack.
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